「温もりの場所」 (Nukumori no Basho)
“Place of Warmth”
Let’s talk about balance, tension, stakes, and how to stack the deck against your protagonists.
Balancing the Sides
Last week I compared this series to Robotics;Notes, in that there’s a mismatch between the scale of the threat and the tools at the protagonists’ disposal to deal with it. That’s a macro, story-wide problem, but it extends to individual conflicts as well. Take the mech battle this episode. Let’s list out the two sides. For the antagonists: A couple of battle-hardened veterans plus an idiot hacker, all piloting state-of-the-art mechs. For the protagonists: An animalistic mech with no tactics, a blowhard amateur in a goofy bulbous mech, and a bunch of teenagers running around on foot. It’s funny because, when I list things out like, it seems like the protagonists aren’t at that much of a disadvantage. The way it plays out, though, is that they look like they should be stomped instantly, so when they’re not, it strains credibility.
The problem is the skill gap. We like scrappy underdogs for our protagonists, our John McClanes, but they need to have some foundation in the skills which allow them to ultimately win. With John McClane (Die Hard), he’s a police detective, so his ability to fire a gun and operate under extreme stress seems plausible. Against and Hans Gruber’s mooks, we believe he can win; it’s only because he’s up against so many of them that he’s the underdog. But if he’s smart enough, and lucky enough—and in his case, is willing to suffer enough—we believe he can win.
I don’t believe Sougo and crew should have survived, much less won, almost any of the battles they’ve been involved in. Luck could explain the first one well enough, but if luck is all your protagonists have, they better have a Rincewind (Discworld) level excuse for it, otherwise it’s just crappy writing. Because they don’t even have a foundation of the skills necessary to fight off seasoned soldiers, it takes coincidences like Roman being hurled into hack boy’s mech to get them out of a sticky situation. And even then, Moura should have just ignored Cap’n Gus and flown earlier. Guh. Maybe if they only had a battle every three episodes, it could work, but a battle a week isn’t doing this series any favors.
Stacking the Deck Against Your Protagonists
The balance problem leads to another issue: The antagonists don’t feel beatable. Not without a deus ex machina or a sudden power-up which will piss us off, at any rate. They’re too strong, too skilled, too experienced. Which is a mistake when it could have so easily been otherwise! Moura is supposed to be this crazy unique mech, which can shrug off bullets like it’s no big thing (though still acts like they’re a threat at times, for some reason). That could have easily put Cap’n Gus’ team at a technological disadvantage, forcing them to be clever and skilled while Moura barreled into them with superior power … which usually seems like something the protagonists would do, but Moura could have been the Empire to Cap’n Gus & co’s Rebel Alliance.
All of this reminds me of a writing technique gleaned from Stephen King. To quote fellow author Ferrett Steinmetz:
But then I thought of all the great Stephen King books where the villains are having their stakes raised at the same time as the protagonist is:
In The Stand, the heroes are struggling to survive – but Randall Flagg is going mad because there are things he can’t quite see, and some of his most trusted lieutenants are leaving him, and goddammit why are things crumbling now that he should be ascendant. (The same can be said of IT‘s terror that the children are something new to IT.)
As writers, we’re frequently told “raise the stakes,” which often translates to “make things worse for the hero.” Which leads to a mostly-static antagonist, who exists only to pile hazards upon the heroes.
But King often makes things worse for his villains, which is a beautiful trick now that I recognize it: it allows him to start out with villains who hold all the cards, making them seem unbeatable. And then their power gets chipped away by the actions of the heroes and their own mistakes, slowly raising the pressure on them, until by the end confrontation they’re beaten down and desperate. The reader’s more involved because she knows that not only is this showdown important for the heroes, but knows that the villain’s got it all riding on this as well. This is vitally important for not just one but two people, and as such even though we know good will mostly triumph (this is a Stephen King book, after all), we’re equally invested in seeing how the villain fails.
Sound familiar? Static antagonists who exist only to pile hazards upon the heroes. Antagonists who seem unbeatable … and who, since the protagonists aren’t chipping away at them, continue to seem unbeatable. This is exactly what’s happening with Comet Lucifer. (Oh, maybe the political front will eat them alive, with that other captain from last episode making moves in that direction, but how satisfying would that be?) And here’s where some people are going to get annoyed at me, because I’m going to refer to my book, but CALM DOWN, I’m not trying to promote. It’s relevant because I did exactly this thing, so I can tell you that it works.
When the protagonists are wearing down the antagonists even as the protags are taking more and more damage (see: McClain, John), the villains get desperate, and they start taking actions that lead to the big, climactic battle. After all, would a prudent villain even allow a climactic encounter? No. They would have everything under control, and would wrap things up before the protagonists ever had a chance (see: Doom, Dr.). The protagonists need to throw spanners into their works enough to force them to play all their cards, and Comet Lucifer is doing none of this. The antagonists keep being thwarted by the will of the gods. The protagonists win because they’re lucky. Each battle is of little to no consequence. It’s an excellent example of how not to do it.
Do Mon, Magic Mushrooms, & Halo
I still can’t find two fucks to rub together for all the soldier flashbacks. I only this episodes realized that the bearded soldier was Do Mon, that’s how little I pay attention to them. But Do Mon’s interaction with Vee—or should I say, Agent Honeybee (as suspected)—was about the only interesting thing that happened this episode. Mostly because I want to know why she’s doing it, and this leads us closer to finding that out, even if we didn’t get it yet. But did you see the curry pot Do Mon strapped to his back when he set out after Sougo’s crew? Ugh. What is this I don’t even.
Well, I take it back—there were other interesting parts of the episode. Reminder: Interesting ≠ good. Take the magic mushrooms, which they were all apparently willing to eat even though no one checked if they were poison, even though they apparently had the ability to do so easily. Are you kidding me? It got really cartoony all of a sudden there, and not even the slice-of-life was working. At least the backgrounds were nice later on. Wish we were getting more of that, and less of everything else.
Looking Ahead – This Show in a Nutshell
Sougo: “You know, I was pretty worried. I’d had a bunch of harrowing experiences, and nothing made any sense at all. Things might get even worse from now on, too.”
*drops mic* *dusts off hands* *heads to the bar*
tl;dr: @StiltsOutLoud – They wrecked the car, ate shrooms, had a pointless battle, & made a sky donut. No, it doesn’t make sense in context either #cometlucifer 07
- Roman shoved his best friend and fiancée (alleged) out of the way to get to the water. Real nice.
- Did anyone else think Moura had died for a minute there? Very odd, because it didn’t feel like a death scene, but Moura was completely limp. Fortunately, the preview spoiled that for us. Er, I think that’s fortunate. Magic 8-Ball says: Answer unclear, ask again later.
My first novel, Wage Slave Rebellion, is available now. (More info—now in paperback!) Sign up for my email list for a FREE sequel novella. Over at stephenwgee.com, the last four posts: Stephen, what is best in life?, It depends, Momentum & mental space, and The best content is in email